The title of Gerhard Richter’s exhibition was “Painting 2012,” yet there was no paint in sight. Instead, Richter, further adding to his plethora of techniques, presented large-scale digital prints bearing variegated horizontal stripes (or “strips,” as he calls them) of vibrant color that whiz across the surface like the view from a Lamborghini at 200 miles per hour.
The stripe configuration is not systematic, but the result of a partly random process. With not enough time to paint while preparing for his recent European retrospective, Richter turned to the computer, running a digital photo of one of his 1990 “scraped” paintings through software that essentially deconstructed it, dividing, mirroring and repeat- ing ever-reduced sections until the image was distilled to its chromatic essence. The formalist in Richter then took over, organizing the linear segments into unique compositions, 18 in this exhibition, ranging in size from moderate (20 by 56 inches) to monumental: 6 feet high and nearly 20 feet long, the largest bisected with minute vertical seams. All the prints are mounted between Plexiglas and aluminum.
The smaller pieces, with their distracting white borders and conventional wood frames, are elegant but hardly earth-shattering. On a grand scale, however, in compositions left unframed, the stripes gain cumulative energy; here the work overcomes its technological origins and hard, flat surface to become as vigorous as the best Abstract Expressionism. The eye, unable to rest, is drawn from one area to another, and standing up close, trying unsuccessfully to focus on a single line, one can almost hear a buzz. Each piece has a distinct character, but the general sense—not surprising, given the horizontal format—is of extruded landscape, vibrating with color. Richter’s masterful calibration of random elements with compositional intent prevents the work from falling into the realm of the decorative, and keeps it alive.
In the center of the rear gallery was a stainless steel structure roughly 9 feet high and wide, holding vertical panes of glass spaced around a foot apart. Titled 6 Panes of Glass in a Rack and dated 2002-11, it was the crux around which everything else in the show revolved. The glass panes reflected, multiplied and blurred the artworks on the walls around them, as well as visitors passing by on the other side of the structure. When either the viewer or others glimpsed through the panes moved, colors seemed to run together, making the reflected stripe works appear as if part of Rich- ter’s series of gray scraped canvases. Meanwhile the people, now fuzzy and distorted, were transformed into animations of his early paintings from photographs.
There is no reason to assume that Richter’s exhibition title is ironic, a comment on the viability of using actual paint in a technological age, or that he is in any way “skeptical”—as other critics have suggested. Richter has always employed photography, has always reconfigured his work and manipulated it. When he said, in a 1984 interview, that “painting is intrinsically capable of giving visible form to our best, most human, most humane qualities,” he probably was not talking about technique. Even his sculpture is about painting.
Photo: Gerhard Richter: 919 Strip, 2012, digital print mounted between Aludibond and Diasec, 78 3/4 by 86 5⁄8 inches; at Marian Goodman.
This massive five-room show by Gerhard Richter delivered all the gravitas of a museum survey, even as it afforded viewers intimate moments of pure visual delight—an opportunity, in effect, to see Richter’s abstractions afresh. Almost all of the 47 works on view were his familiar painterly abstractions with shrewdly layered chroma. There was also a handful of anomalies (both stylistic and chronological): an opaque, all-gray canvas from 1976; a tiny painting from 2008 of a fence across the street from the artist’s studio; a 2009 C-print on glass (edition of 40) of Richter’s earlier painting of the Twin Towers. Most memorably, a mirror around 5 feet square hung at the tail end of the exhibition like an unexpected punctuation mark: Mirror 2008 (edition of 8). Some of the best paintings in the show were nearby, and none looked as alive, as potent, reflected in that mirror as in real life. Could this have been a comment on the critical apparatus that seems always to accompany Richter—one that, perhaps, allows us too easily to discard the living, breathing experience at hand?
“When confronted with Gerhard Richter’s most recent abstractions, especially the large-scale, almost monochrome, white paintings,” writes Benjamin Buchloh in the catalogue essay, “one instantly feels compelled to pose questions concerning the historical fates of painterly reduction.” Buchloh is referring to works of great sensuousness and tactility that do not feel in the least reductive. All boast deep, sometimes illusionistic spaces; even the “white paintings” resonate with chords of color (warm bottle-green in some, cool gray-blue in others). In this show alone there were groupings of paintings with chromatic changes as diverse as wildflowers in a field, while small works on Aludibond have sleek, smooth surfaces that convey a giddy sense of speed. Richter’s own words from a recent interview in the online publication ArtInfo seem more apt. “I always start these abstract paintings very colorful and very free,” the artist tells interviewer Sarah Douglas. “Everything is possible, there are no rules.”
Still, Fence (2008), a small painting hanging by the elevator door, where it might be easily overlooked, showed Richter continuing to toy with the boundaries between painting and photography. The scene is blurry, but distinct enough to make out. Or is it? One wonders how to read a shadow of alizarin crimson that creeps in from the lower right corner, spreading a rich pool of color across the sunny street. It feels autographic somehow, like a silhouette cast by a photographer who snapped the shutter while the sun was at his back. Fence is a small, but potent, example of Richter’s uncanny ability to make us rethink what’s before our eyes—and enjoy the rethinking.
Photo: Gerhard Richter: 909-6 Abstract Painting, 2009, oil on Aludibond, 585⁄8 by 825⁄8 inches; at Marian Goodman.